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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Paolini, Pehl and Caldwell: In Conversations About Standardized Tests, Don’t Forget Disability

By ignoring student voices, President Sian Leah Beilock completely failed to consider disabled students.

As members of Access Dartmouth, a student group dedicated to student accessibility, we are writing to oppose President Sian Leah Beilock’s decision to reinstate the standardized testing requirement for undergraduate admissions. This decision will harm the admissions chances of disabled students, a group that has for far too long been overlooked in higher education. Disabled students are equally capable of excelling at Dartmouth and equally deserving of inclusion and opportunity.

In her announcement, Beilock stated that her decision was “guided by social science research,” but there are significant flaws to the chosen methods and frame of analysis. First and foremost, the analysis entirely fails to consider or even acknowledge disabled students, even though 21% of college undergraduates nationwide report having a disability. 

Standardized tests serve as a tool for structural ableism, or the systemic devaluation and disadvantages that are faced by people with disabilities. In the words of the disability scholar Sid Wolinsky, “standardized tests test students’ disabilities, not their abilities.” Standardized tests capture a narrow metric for intelligence and academic performance that excludes students with learning and developmental disabilities. This is especially concerning for undiagnosed students, who are disproportionately low-income, BIPOC, female and English language learners. 

Even attempts by the SAT and the ACT to provide disability-related accommodations fall short. Accommodations require extensive and costly documentation that many students who need them do not have. Even when accommodations are granted, common measures such as additional time do not make up for how standardized tests are fundamentally hostile to students with learning disabilities like dyscalculia. 

It is unclear to what extent these disadvantages can be acknowledged in the admissions process, especially for college applicants who do not have a diagnosis or are not even aware of their disability. What is clear is that none of this was explicitly considered when the test-optional policy was reversed.

We would also like to bring attention to the fact that the report uses overly narrow metrics for success. The report argues that “standardized test scores are an important predictor of a student’s success in Dartmouth’s curriculum.” According to the analysis, however, what test scores predict are first-year GPA, earnings after graduation and attendance at elite graduate schools. Because disabled students face structural ableism in the classroom and in the workplace, they numerically appear less successful according to these metrics. But this does not mean that disabled students cannot succeed at Dartmouth, or do not deserve to be here. 

For a college whose mission is to create lifelong leaders and learners, this narrow conception of success is misguided. Success can be measured by the unique ideas students bring to the classroom, the leadership and service roles they take on and how they promote a sense of community and well-being on campus. In all of these measures, disabled students contribute to a rich campus culture. Requiring standardized tests shuts the door in the face of countless disabled students with aspirations and potential.

The origin of standardized testing in eugenics is a complex history that intertwines race, class and disability. As a result, this policy decision requires the use of an intersectional framework, but the report cited by President Beilock focuses narrowly on socioeconomic status. While research may suggest overarching benefits of the policy to low-income students, an intersectional lens reveals the harms of such a decision to students who are both disabled and BIPOC, both disabled and low-income, or otherwise multiply marginalized. If the administration had chosen to incorporate the experiences of diverse students into decision-making, this glaring oversight would not exist.

As an institution, Dartmouth College is committed to maintaining its prestige. However, this prestige must be defined by our students’ ability to enact change in the world, rather than by the unjust exclusion of disabled students. Disabled voices, like the voices of many underserved students on this campus, have not been included in administrative decision-making. 

As members of a student group dedicated to advocating for a truly accessible campus, we condemn both the process and the rationale for this decision. We extend our sympathies to the many disabled prospective students who will be put at a severe disadvantage in future admissions cycles. We also urge President Beilock and the rest of the administration to formally and transparently reevaluate its policy, this time while incorporating the diverse voices on this campus. No one can speak to our lived experiences better than we can.

Clark Paolini ’25 is the co-president of Access Dartmouth. Samantha Pehl ’27 and Marion Caldwell ’25 are each members of Access Dartmouth. Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

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